Sundays at Cafe Comercial

I’ve lived in Spain twice, once taking a semester off at the start of my junior year in college, and once four years later. Both times I mostly lived in Madrid.

Madrid seemed familiar to me at first, a big city that reminded me of my hometown of New York. But Spanish culture and the patterns of daily life were very un-American at the time. The siesta still existed, meaning long breaks at 2pm for lunch, and the workday stretched to 8pm. You couldn’t start dinner at a restaurant before 10pm unless you wanted to eat alone.

The thing I noticed most, though, were Sundays.

On Sundays, nearly everything was closed. A whole vibrant, dynamic city shut itself down for the day.

When I first lived in Spain, those Sundays felt endless. I spent a huge amount of energy grumbling about things being closed, noticing all the things I couldn’t do, and, finally and reluctantly, finding ways to fill my time.

I moved back to Spain four years later, and this second time around I more quickly slipped into the culture and rhythm of the place. I began to notice the beauty of the different way things were done: going to lots of little shops one at time to shop on Saturdays (a fruit shop, a cheese shop, a butcher) wasn’t worse than having everything at one supermarket. Yes, it was slower, but I got to know the couple that ran Tomad Mucha Fruta, and they got to know me. I talked each week to the butcher, and to the many abuelas on line with me, about how a stew or a roast had turned out and what I would make the following week. My now-wife and I would have long conversations with the cheese guy (she also had a crush on him…and how can you compete with a guy who is good looking AND sells cheese?) All of this wove us into the fabric of our neighborhood and the local community.

Sundays were the biggest difference. This second time around, ‘nothing to do’ was something I began to understand intuitively. A few months into the year, my wife and I created a lovely routine. We’d print out the NY Times Sunday Crossword (newly possible thanks to the internet) and make our way to one of Madrid’s big old coffee shops, Café Comercial. We’d settle in with a big café con leche, maybe a palmeira or other snack, and pass half the day reading, talking and doing the crossword.

Those Sundays were far and away the most peaceful time I had during that year.

Everything being closed meant we had nowhere to be. Having nowhere to be meant we could embrace moving slowly, letting time be expansive, and truly taking a day of rest.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as ready as you are for “shelter in place” to become a thing of the past. But that’s not happening any time soon.

So, let’s allow ourselves—those of who are not on the front lines, bravely serving others with a fraction of the support they need or deserve—to reframe this moment.

Let’s allow time to pass differently.

Let’s be thankful for what we have, and sometimes, just sometimes, to experience our inability to do all we want to do as a new kind of freedom.

The Eye of the Storm

Like many, I’ve found my week and life disrupted by the Coronavirus.

First, over the weekend we decided to keep our 60 Decibels New York team working from home for the start of this week, since two of our team members live in Westchester County (which has been leading the nation in total number of Coronavirus cases).  Then I learned late on Sunday night that our school district was closing until March 18th.

One thing I’ve noticed over the past week is that we’re all on different Coronavirus waves. Each wave is separated by a few days or maybe weeks, and each brings with it a different experience of how real, and close, this pandemic is. I expect that what’s going on in Westchester County, where I live, is a lot like what happened in Northern Italy two or three weeks ago, and that what we’re experiencing will soon happen in other parts of the country.

The main thing I’m noticing is nobody seems to really know what’s going on or what to do. This is all new, uncharted territory, and outside of learning how to wash our hands better, everything else—figuring out whether and when to close things down, to practice social distancing or to quarantine ourselves—is a guessing game, especially in the absence of widespread testing.

What I’m personally experiencing is a low-level fog, a sense that there’s something potentially terrible going on out there, with “out there” not that far from home. I think a lot about the math of exponential spread: it would overwhelm our healthcare system and, potentially, cause significant and widespread fatalities. At the same time, I pray that we will look back at this as a crisis averted and learn from it for the future. I’m pretty sure that the best way to avoid the worst scenarios is much broader testing and changes in social behavior to lower the rate of transmission. But what that means in reality, on a national scale, is hard to imagine.

Despite these thoughts droning on in the background, boosted by my Twitter feed, the sun has been out, the early spring days are beautiful, and right now everyone I know is, as far as I know, as safe and healthy as they were last week. It’s all very confusing.

If a preview of having Coronavirus in your community is helpful, here goes. We keep getting drips of messages of closures and cancelations, including from stores and care providers we’ve never heard of.  Everyone who has been “thinking hard” about whether or not to close has closed. Our school’s messaging is broad and vague: there’s no clear plan for how long this will last, whether remote instruction will happen for our kids, and whether this is the start of something that will last much longer.

At each juncture we have no choice but to guess at how to act and what to do. No one has told us that we, or our kids, should stop seeing other people, so do we stop completely? Do we stop sort of? Do we stop not at all? Should we be buying beans and rice and canned goods like crazy, or just shopping normally? And why, of all things, are people stocking up on toilet paper? Is that really our biggest concern?

And, taking a step back, if this is going to be a long haul, will we look back at these early days and think how good we had it? Or will we think “if only we had done more, maybe we could have collectively contained this better?”

I honestly don’t know.

I do I wish that the people whose job it is to take away all this collective guesswork were doing a much better job. Isn’t it easy to take public infrastructure and the public good for granted until we really need it?

Insurance policies are a waste of money until disaster strikes. The ability to attend to collective well-being is quaint, antiquated, even un-American until we are all, collectively, at risk. The need for a functioning healthcare system for all is a politically charged, ideological question until, suddenly, we realize we are all in it together.

My hope is that our public infrastructure and civic leaders step up despite our systematic disemboweling of the public sector, and that our renowned private sector, so adept at saving us one day of delivery time on a pair of sneakers can point its problem-solving ability to a challenge of global proportions.

In the meantime, stay safe, stay positive, and let’s take good care of each other.